There are already many well-written guides on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for nonprofits. Most advise you to constantly publish strategic website content, follow SEO trends, conduct keyword research with paid tools, and regularly monitor your KPIs in Google Analytics and Google Search Console. They are crafted for nonprofits with substantial marketing budgets, clear goals, and many hands on deck.
But what happens when you’re a small nonprofit with a small (or nonexistent) marketing budget. This post is going to take a different angle. I want to talk about some of the reasons why most marketing discussions exclude SEO and offer some solutions for considering it.
So who am I? And why am I wearing so many costumes? Let’s start there.
The Nonprofit Dilemma
I’m what they call a “volunteer enthusiast.”
I get great pleasure from regularly giving back to my community. Over the last two years I tracked a total of 405 volunteer hours, including but not limited to:
- Imitating Dolly Parton at a children’s karaoke night to promote her Imagination Library
- Organizing a variety show fundraiser to end sexual violence and wearing a handmade Bjӧrk swan costume to emcee (and then again the following year wearing a curtain dress a la The Carol Burnett Show).
- Dressing up as a giant bumblebee to raise funds in the literacy council spelling bee (and getting into a public dispute with the judges over technicalities).
Oh, and I’ve also done some things that didn’t require a costume change, such as serving on a board, organizing speaker events, and doing pro-bono SEO work, but those don’t make for a super engaging graphic.
Over the years, I’ve talked with many nonprofits about their digital marketing concerns, specifically SEO, and I think it’s important to talk about some patterns before we can get into the solutions.
Why SEO isn’t Always a Priority
Think about your favorite nonprofit. You might work there, receive services, or lend support in other ways, such as donating or volunteering. Does thinking about this organization make you feel warm and fuzzy? Rightfully so! Nonprofits get s*** done. They know exactly what their mission is, who they serve, and what they’re not.
Much of SEO for any entity is about knowing your target audiences and creating information for them to access through Google or another search engine. In theory, SEO should be fairly straightforward for nonprofits who know who they’re trying to reach, especially if they’re already regularly crafting talking points and messaging. These folks are experts in their field and can write with authority. So why, then, is SEO often the digital marketing channel that gets the least amount of love?
Why So Complicated
So why don’t more small nonprofits talk about SEO in their marketing plans? Firstly, the quality and quantity of any digital marketing efforts that a nonprofit has capacity for is limited by money, resources, and time.
Because it’s a fairly new and evolving industry, SEO arguably takes time and requires expertise. Small nonprofit organizations ($1MM to $5MM in annual budget according to Guidestar) and grassroots orgs (with an even lower budget) must prioritize how they allocate funds. They may have just enough money to hire someone to build their website, run social media ads, or pay for volunteer management software, then that’s it ‘til next year. Hiring an SEO specialist likely won’t make the cut (and without other digital assets in place, it probably shouldn’t).
Nonprofit employees who are focused on doing the work are often not also the ones who are able to (or want to) strategically market it. Employees are stretched thin (just Google the phrase nonprofit burnout) and the executive director wears many hats, from raising funds to supervising staff to writing grants. If someone is amazing at chatting up large donors or engaging a big audience that should take precedence over them learning how to launch an Instagram ad.
SEO is Widely Misunderstood
The second reason SEO may be hard to address is that there are many misconceptions about it. Long gone are the days of keyword stuffing and black hat linkbuilding techniques, however, those tactics still occupy space when people talk about SEO. SEO today is about putting content out into the world that reflects your expertise, authority, and trustworthiness, or E-A-T.
It’s important to know that improving your SEO can help potential clients, donors, and volunteers:
- Contact you and physically find your office
- Understand your programs and services
- Learn about issues related to what you offer
- Be more likely to support your cause, depending on where they are in the funnel.
How SEO Can Support Your Marketing Goals
When it comes to online marketing, are you trying to grow your email list? Increase event attendance? Foster more long-time donors? Before you can score, you have to locate the goal posts. SEO specialists often feel (and maybe sound) like broken records because we constantly ask clients, “What are your marketing goals? How are you planning to get there?” We need to establish where we need to go before we can begin to think about how SEO can play a part. (Read more on establishing SMART goals.)
An SEO colleague told me about a time when her client was struggling to get SEO buy-in from stakeholders. A nonprofit client’s online efforts were hyperfocused on a monthly measurable increase in online subscriptions. Initially, the client was spending their writing resources on blog posts addressing existing donors with no attention given to how their content could bring in new donors. They didn’t think content was any value for potential donors. She showed them Google Analytics’ data that revealed a lack of traffic to their posts organically. She also looked at the low open rates on emails. She proposed a change of direction, taking into account the small team and how thinly stretched staff were already.
Instead of creating content based on guesses and gut reactions, nonprofits would benefit from creating marketing goals and thinking about how content can support them. You can create content that supports lead generations, newsletter signups, or top-of-the-funnel informational queries to educate others. If you couple your organic posts with email marketing, you can see how much the content is resonating with different audiences (lists are crucial in an email marketing platform like Mailchimp). A little goes a long way in gaining momentum and stakeholder buy-in.
This new content strategy she created satisfied existing subscribers via email and attracted new customers, saving time, money, and resources.
4 Actionable Tips to Improve Your SEO
1. Think About Your Website’s Purpose
Sure, most nonprofit organizations have websites. You may think that’s reason enough to have one, too, but I encourage you to ask yourself, Why do we need a website? What is the point? Just like your nonprofit has a mission, so does your website! Whether you offer events, services, and programming or want to grow your organization through online donations, that may be reason enough to have it all in one place. This will also affect how you organize it (although, make sure your donate button is in the upper right corner and in the footer at the very minimum).
2. How’s Your Local SEO?
In Seer's Digital Marketing Guide for Nonprofits, we go over the basics of local SEO. It’s really important that you claim your Google My Business Listing. This way you can post photos, adjust office hours for holidays, and keep your contact information up to date.
This is an example of the one for Jewish Family Services that I helped them create. Note that you can add events! It’s just one more way to spread the word about the amazing work you’re doing.
And just real’ quick while I have you here. If you’re a nonprofit, I highly recommend that you look into Google Ad Grants. The grants offer $10,000 of free ad spend on Google for qualifying nonprofits. Completely free. We also cover this in our Digital Marketing Guide for Nonprofits.
3. Publish Fresh, Relevant Content
Remember when I said I wouldn’t tell you to publish lots of new strategic content? I stand by that--mostly. It’s difficult to produce strategic content all the time, but you shouldn’t never post. I do think there is a happy medium. New or updated content on your site tells Google that you’re active and creating content people may want to read. It also helps you capture real estate in the search engine results pages (SERPs) and give expertise views on your issues.
There’s likely an awareness week or month for the cause you support. Make sure you’re adding to the conversation. What information do your clients wish was online that they had trouble finding? Can you create that resource? Content calendars are great ways to plan out what kind of blog topics you can publish, but I understand that most small nonprofits don’t have many writers who can keep up.
For writers, my advice would be to tap into your volunteer and board pool. Do you have anyone with content creation experience? Could they ghost blog for you? Executive directors and board members often don’t realize how much they truly know about a topic and ghost writers are able to interview them and extract amazing information. Just make sure you cite expertise sources to support any statistics or major claims. One other tip is to avoid including the dates in the URL of your blog unless you’re a media outlet. Some WordPress hosted blogs have the date automatically applied to the URL, but this can be bad for user experience if you aren’t publishing content regularly.
Don’t forget about YouTube. Videos are considered content, too! Tap into your team and see if anyone has time to create a video on a pressing issue or hot topic. It doesn’t have to be with a professional camera. Smartphones work great!
4. Ask for Backlinks
You’re in the nonprofit world; I know you’re not shy. If you’re an executive director or on the development team and a reporter contacts you for an interview, ask them for a link to your site (homepage or relevant landing page) when the interview is wrapping up. Backlinks are a great way for one site to vouch for another.
SEO is just one component of a larger marketing plan and it can seem daunting, especially when so many other aspects of your nonprofit world take precedence (like grants and outreach). Much of SEO is about making sure your business is contributing quality information to the search landscape (aka answering queries relevant to what you offer with top-notch information). Consider your marketing goals (based on your business goals) and then see how SEO can support them.
With a shortage of time, money, and resources I believe you can still optimize your site and grow your impact by thinking about your site’s purpose, crossing things off a local SEO checklist, publishing some content, and asking for backlinks when your organization is in the news or on partner sites.